When the Golden Age ends

While Ibn Ezra was a wanderer afterwards, he rescued the Hebrew culture of Muslim Spain and was responsible for its continuation in the Christian realm of the Iberian Peninsula.

Santa Maria La Blanca, Spain  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Santa Maria La Blanca, Spain
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Peter Cole, in his translations into English of the great poets of medieval Spain – the volume is titled The Dream of the Poem (2007) – paints a portrait of Abraham Ibn Ezra as a man adrift. Ibn Ezra, the celebrated Bible commentator, also wrote poetry, much that has been lost. With the invasion by the Berber Almohads of Andalusia in 1146, Ibn Ezra was torn from the high Jewish culture of Muslim Spain that he cultivated for more than a generation.
While Ibn Ezra was a wanderer afterwards, he rescued the Hebrew culture of Muslim Spain and was responsible for its continuation in the Christian realm of the Iberian Peninsula. He established what would be called a Jewish Silver Age in Aragon and Castile but his sense that a Golden Age had ended in Andalusia haunts his work, especially his poetry.
One of Cole’s most moving translations of Abraham Ibn Ezra is a lament for Andalusian Jewry. The poem begins with these words: “Calamity came upon Spain from the skies, and my eyes pour fourth streams of tears.”
While the length of the poem prohibits me from quoting it in full, I will present some of the elegy in the Cole translation. Ibn Ezra writes: “I moan like an owl for the town of Lucena, where Exile dwelled, guiltless and strong, for a thousand and seventy years unchanged – until the day she was expelled, leaving her like a widow, forlorn, deprived of the Scriptures and books of the Law.”
The poet’s grief is profound: “I shave my head and bitterly keen for Seville’s martyrs and sons who were taken, as daughters were forced into strangeness of faith.” He continues lamenting the Almohads’ persecution of Jews in all the great cities of Muslim Spain.
While the lament of the decline of Jewish life and culture in Andalusia is moving, the reality is that the beginning of the end of the Golden Age of Jews in Muslim Spain had its origins in events that occurred in the middle of the 11th century, long before Ibn Ezra was born. In his study of The Making of Modern Zionism (2nd ed. 2017), political scientist Shlomo Avineri quotes the following from Hegel: “Great revolutions which strike the eye at a glance must have been preceded by a quiet and secret revolution in the spirit of the age (Zeitgeist), a revolution not visible to every eye, especially imperceptible to contemporaries, and as hard to discern as describe in words. It is lack of acquaintance with this spiritual revolution which makes the resulting changes astonishing.”
Yet, Hegel’s evaluation of the origins of revolution can be applied as well to a decline of Jewry and a decline of civilizations. The final breakdown of a society has its roots in events that are often imperceptible. Let me apply this to the case of the Jews in Muslim Spain.
The civil war between Arabs and Berbers in Cordoba in 1013 is the earliest harbinger of the decline in the Jews of Andalusia. The Umayyad caliphate was the setting for one of the great Court Jews, Hasdai Ibn Shaprut (c. 915-970). Hasdai was not only the personal physician of caliphs but was an accomplished diplomat, director of customs and the patron of Jewish religious and cultural life in Muslim Spain. While Jews survived the destruction of the beautiful and cultured city of Cordoba, the Golden Age over which Hasdai Ibn Shaprut presided suffered a blow. Political chaos rarely meant good news for Jews.
The greatest of all the Court Jews of Andalusia was to come later in the Berber kingdom of Granada but his story ends in bloodshed and Jew hatred. Samuel Hanagid (993-1056) served as prime minister and military leader of the Berber Muslim Kingdom of Granada. Although a Jew and one of the greatest Hebrew poets of the Golden Age, he maintained the loyalty of his Muslim soldiers in 20 summers of fighting the Arab kingdom of Seville. Only 10 years after his death, the Berbers and Arabs in Granada assassinated his son and successor Yehoseph and massacred the community on a Shabbat morning in December 1066.
Yes, Granada was able to resurrect itself as a center of Jewish culture and learning – but this did not last long. The fanatic Almoravids, invited by the Muslims of Spain to repel the Christian reconquest, came from North Africa, purged the Jews from state positions and extorted heavy fines from Jews who would not convert to Islam. In the years following the short reign of terror of the Almoravids, some of the great Hebrew poets and cultural figures emerged in Andalusia. Judah Halevi and Moses Ibn Ezra (no relation to the celebrated Bible commentator) composed poetry that not only reinforced the notion that the Golden Age was not in peril but also provoked the opposite reaction that the great epoch was coming to an end. Judah Halevi’s “Odes to Zion” and his philosophical masterpiece The Kuzari attacked the ideals of the culture in which he lived and cast doubt on the future of the Jews in Andalusia. Abraham Ibn Ezra befriended the older Poet of Zion and lived to see the breakup that The Kuzari philosopher predicted.
Despite the thought and life of Maimonides being considered the apogee of the Golden Age of Spain, by the age of 10 the Almohads forced Moses and his family out of Cordoba. The incredible halachic and philosophical works of Judaism’s greatest thinker were the product of Ayyubid Egypt, far away from the Almohad terror of Andalusia. While Maimonides would always identify as a Sephardi Jew, the Golden Age of Muslim Spain was transplanted and was over. While Jewish life flourished in the aljamas of Christian Spain, that Silver Age was not going to last for more than a century and a half. Even before the forced and voluntary Jewish conversions to Catholicism that ushered in a century of vigorous proselytizing in 1391 there were signals that the large Sephardic community was in trouble.
This decline of Andalusian Jewry should not be read as simply history. I remember lecturing in Boca Raton 15 years ago on the rise of antisemitism in the United Kingdom. Two British tourists in South Florida approached me and claimed that, as Jews, they never experienced antisemitism in their country. They believed I was simply exaggerating. What do these denizens of Golders Green think now?
To return to Avineri’s elucidation of Hegel, decline can set in before anyone notices and then Jew-hatred or assimilation hits them over the head. Of course, I also think of American Jewry. There are signs of strength but also strong signs of decline. Who will compose the lament for our Jewry? Sight is the seeing of today’s reality. But vision is a reality that cannot even be comprehended until it is too late.
The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.